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310                                                                                                             B. POLEVOI
they had passed through, as they usually did after a
successful engagement. Gloomily they stepped up to the
Chief of Staff, reported results in dry, curt phrases and
went off without looking at each other.
Alexei was a new man in the wing. He did not know
the two men who had perished. But he was affected by
the prevailing mood. The biggest and most important
event in his life, the thing he had striven for with all the
power of his body and mind and which was to determine
his future course of life—his return to the ranks of the
sound and fit—had occurred. How many times had he
dreamed of this—in his hospital bed, and later, when
learning to walk and to dance, and when recovering his
skill as an aviator by hard training! And now, when the
long-hoped-for day had arrived, after he had downed
two German planes and he was again an equal in the
family of fighter-pilots, he, like the rest, stepped up to
the Chief of Staff, reported his score, explained the cir-
cumstances and praised his follower, and then sat down
in the shade of a birch-tree and thought of those who
had not returned that day.
Petrov was the only one who ran around the airfield,
bareheaded, his fair hair fluttering in the breeze, and
clutching those he encountered by the sleeve, related to
".. .right next to me he was, within arm's reach
almost---- Well, listen----I saw the senior lieutenant
aiming at the leader. I got the one next to him in my
sight. Bang!"
He ran up to Meresyev, dropped down at his feet on
the soft, grassy moss and stretched out; but unable to stay
in this restful position he jumped up and exclaimed:
"You did some wonderful stunts today! Grand! Took
my breath away!... Do you know how I downed that
fellow? Just listen.... I followed you and saw him right
next to me, as close as you are to me now... ."
"Wait a minute, old man," interrupted Alexei, patting
his pockets. "Those letters! What did I do with those
He remembered the letters he had received that day
and had not had time to read. He felt a cold sweat break
over him when he failed to find them in his pockets. He